On Friday, the Washington Post reported on the case of a 42-year old Libyan, Abdul Rauf al-Qassim, one of around 80 prisoners currently languishing in Guantánamo who were cleared for release at least a year ago. Many of these prisoners – including 14 Uyghurs from China’s Xinxiang province – are still held because the Pentagon cannot guarantee that they will not be tortured or murdered if they are returned to their home countries and cannot find another country to accept them (although the Uyghurs may well join their five compatriots who were dumped in a refugee camp in Albania in May 2006). After the suffering that these prisoners have endured in American custody, this concern for their welfare remains one of the more surreal episodes in the reality-defying saga of the “War on Terror,” and is not helped by the fact that the majority of them are held in solitary confinement for 22 hours a day, in circumstances that would tax some of the most hardened convicted criminals in America’s “Supermax” prisons.
In al-Qassim’s case, however, the problem is not that he cannot be returned to his home country, but that he doesn’t want to go, and is “publicly fighting” the government’s plans to return him to Libya. Since March 2004, when British Prime Minister Tony Blair – looking as comfortable as a schoolboy lost in the wrong part of town – was welcomed by Colonel Gaddafi in his Bedouin tent in Tripoli, the Libyan regime – once an implacable terror-sponsoring enemy – has become the West’s new best friend in North Africa. Never mind that the State Department reports annually that torture and abuse are still rife in Libya’s prisons, Gaddafi has renounced his Weapons of Mass Destruction, has joined the merry Western World of mega-bucks, oil deals and arms sales, and is a staunch ally in the “War on Terror.”
Ever since the first reports leaked out that the CIA had “rendered” al-Qaeda suspects to Libya for “interrogation,” the former pariah’s status as friend to the West has been one of the more reprehensible manifestations of the murky realpolitik that actually underpins the whole US-led anti-terror coalition. It’s not the only corrupt alliance by any means, of course. In defense of “freedom” and “democracy,” the US and the UK have been happily dealing with numerous repressive, undemocratic regimes, including Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt and Uzbekistan. Other regimes – in theory less dictatorial – have also queued up to be paid and not punished, including Morocco, Jordan and, at the time of writing, Kenya and Ethiopia. At the other end of the scale – at least in the early years of the “War on Terror” – al-Qaeda suspects were also “rendered” to Syria for “interrogation,” in a deal that reveals the West’s purported commitment to human rights and justice for the hollow, dead-eyed rhetoric that it really is: while President Bush was publicly calling Syria a member of the “axis of evil,” he was also busy engaging Syrian intelligence – the notorious Mukhabarat – as proxy torturers.
Despite being cleared for release by the Pentagon, Abdul Rauf al-Qassim has good reason to fear being returned to Libya. A soldier in the Libyan army from 1983 to 1989, he then deserted, traveling to Afghanistan “to immigrate and to start a new life.” After fighting with the mujahideen until 1993, when the last remnants of the Soviet regime fell, he “traveled back and forth between Pakistan and Afghanistan” – at one point studying at university in Quetta – and also met and married an Afghan woman, Rahima, with whom he had a daughter, Khiria, who has spent the whole of her young life without her father. Al-Qassim was captured in Lahore in May 2002, at the house of a Pakistani, after escaping from war-torn Afghanistan with his pregnant wife, but although it was clear that he had not taken up arms against the Americans, it was far less clear that he would not be regarded as a threat by the government of his home country.
In his Administrative Review Board in May 2005 (convened to review the prisoners’ status as “enemy combatants”), he explained – via a statement made to his Assisting Military Officer – that he had received military training at two Libyan camps in Afghanistan, but only because he was living there, and admitted that he had joined the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group – exiled opponents of the Gaddafi regime – but only “out of desperation – he was broke, had no place to go, was hungry, unemployed and had no way to support himself.” He added that his family “did not receive monetary support from the [LIFG], but he received food, shelter and an allowance for clothes.” He also agreed with previous statements he had made: that he “did not believe in violence,” and that he “angrily defined [al-Qaeda’s] leadership and members as ‘savages’ who twist the meaning of Islam, thereby hurting all Muslims.”
Although al-Qassim stated that a Libyan delegation, who visited Guantánamo in 2004 (and were actually flown there by the CIA), told him that they “knew he was with the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group only by name,” that he was “obligated to be with them,” and that they would “take care of him,” he repeatedly told his Assisting Military Officer that he was “afraid of returning to Libya.” “He said he does not want to go to Libya because he feels he cannot trust them and because they put people in prison for no reason,” his AMO reported. “He said he feels that if he returns to Libya, even after being released by the United States, he would be sent back to prison.” Such was his concern that the Presiding Officer of his ARB noted, “For the record, make sure that we put in our report that the Detainee is afraid of returning to Libya,” a comment that has clearly been ignored by the administration, as it prepares to fulfil his worst fears.
Al-Qassim is not without friends in America. The Center for Constitutional Rights has taken up his case, fighting for him in the courts and, with the help of the Afghan Human Rights Organization, tracing his wife and daughter. In addition, Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, has embraced his cause, urging the government to consider other options, and pointing out that, because he has an Afghan wife and child, he is eligible for Afghan citizenship.
In a letter to the State Department, he wrote that it would be a “grave injustice” to send al-Qassim to Libya, “because the State Department has reported that the country engages in torture, including electric shocks and suffocation,” and in a recent interview he said that, “by virtue of his alleged connection to a group that opposes the Libyan government,” al-Qassim was “at particular risk for abuse,” adding, “The State Department doesn’t have a leg to stand on if they’re going to contradict their own analysis.”
It remains to be seen whether the campaign mounted by Rep. Markey and CCR will be successful, although the omens are not good. In December 2006, unnoticed by almost everyone, another Libyan, 38-year old Mohammed al-Rimi (aka al-Futuri), was returned to Libya from Guantánamo. An economic migrant, who had traveled to Afghanistan via Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, al-Rimi explained in Guantánamo that he had spent two years in Afghanistan with the vast worldwide missionary organization Jamaat-al-Tablighi, and denied that he had any militant connections. Although he added that he had had problems with the Libyan authorities, and had left Libya because of religious persecution, he was apparently willing to return home when told that he had been cleared for release. On his return, Saleh Abdulsalam, a spokesman for a government-related charity, said that al-Rimi had been diagnosed with tuberculosis but was not wanted by Libyan authorities and would “go back to his family soon,” although according to human rights activists, this was a lie, and he has simply exchanged one prison for another.
What may help al-Qassim – if his lawyers can extract enough leverage from it – is a decision made by the UK’s Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC) on 27 April, that two Libyan prisoners held without charge or trial in the UK’s own mini-version of Guantánamo could not be returned to Libya because they were at risk of being tortured. The Commission’s decision was particularly galling for the British government because, in October 2005, Libya signed a “memorandum of understanding,” promising that it would not torture or ill-treat Libyans returned from the UK.
This was touted by the Foreign Office as the answer to a problem that had long preoccupied them – how to bypass international conventions prohibiting governments from sending people back to a country where they might face torture or ill-treatment – but it became increasingly more urgent as they cooperated with American intelligence in the wake of 9/11, and it seems clear, from the ways in which both the Americans and the British have been attempting to neutralize the prohibitions against returning people to countries where they face torture, that Abdul Rauf al-Qassim is part of a concerted effort by both countries to undermine international legal safeguards.
Unfortunately for the Foreign Office, the SIAC judges concluded that the “memorandum of understanding” was not worth the paper it was written on. One can only hope, for al-Qassim’s sake, that the State Department feels the same way.
ANDY WORTHINGTON (www.andyworthington.co.uk) is a British historian, and the author of ‘The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison’ (to be published by Pluto Press in October 2007).
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org